Marcus du Sautoy in Prospect:
If I ruled the world, the first thing I would do is to make sure that everyone understood Euclid’s proof that there is an infinity of prime numbers. To some people that might seem like a strange suggestion, so let me explain. In itself, Euclid’s proof is not particularly useful for anything. But what it shows is the power of analytical thinking and the magic of mathematics. Studying Euclid would plant a seed in people’s minds that would grow into an appreciation of how this extraordinary tool can help us to navigate the world. Mathematics helps us predict the future. We know about climate change, for example, because of mathematical equations.
Mathematics is not only about utility—it’s also about wonder and beauty. This goes to the heart of the problems with mathematical education in the UK. Governments want to teach mathematical skills that will be useful to the person on the street. But most of the stuff pupils learn at school—quadratic equations, trigonometry—they are never going to use. What they are being taught is the power to string together a logical argument, to see patterns in behaviour. With Euclid’s proof, you see how a finite series of logical arguments can get you to an extraordinary revelation: that you can conceive of the infinite. That, for me, is an amazing breakthrough in human thought.